8 FAKE NEWS INDIA SPECIAL EDITION JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2019
Indian media fights fake news in
run up to Lok Sabha elections
By Neha Gupta
India became a breeding ground for the
spread of fake news in May 2017, when
seven men were lynched in Jharkhand
following rumours of a gang kidnapping
of children. The police said they had not
registered a single case of kidnapping.
The men were killed over a rumour.
A BBC report reveals that fake news is spreading in India
owing to a “rising tide of nationalism.” Right-wing networks
are much more organised than on the Left, giving
a push to “nationalistic fake stories.”
In India, the roots of misinformation are linked to a
rise in nationalism and an overarching fear of children
being harmed. Mob violence, fuelled by doctored videos
and fake images, has resulted in several injuries, and in
some cases, fatalities.
One of the ways that misinformation has found its
way into the news cycle is through the catalyst of WhatsApp,
the Facebook-owned messaging platform. India is
the world’s second largest smartphone market (after
China), and WhatsApp’s largest market, with more than
250 million monthly active users.
To combat fake news, in August 2018, WhatsApp
imposed a limit on the forwarding of messages in India
to no more than five contacts. In January, this limit was
IndiaSpend, a data journalism outlet, estimates 33
people to have been killed in 69 incidents of mob violence
between January 2017 and July 2018.
Government proposal rejected
In 2018, the Indian government asked Facebook for the
provision to stop and trace problematic messages, a demand
that would short-circuit the encrypted security that
is central to the app’s popularity. WhatsApp would have
to break into its encrypted chats to trace rumours that
fuel violence, putting user privacy at stake. Facebook has
steadfastly opposed the Indian government’s demand.
The Quint’s fact-checking initiative, WebQoof (a play
on the Hindi word Bewaqoof meaning “idiot”), launched
in 2017. “Our journalists make it a point to get in touch
with the source and look up the history of the issue at
hand. Online tools are only the first level of filter,” said
Ritu Kapur, The Quint.
For the 2019 general elections, The Quint’s strategy is
to use the portal to its advantage.
“We will also have a focus team that will work on
only election-related fake news doing the rounds. The
BBC is working in collaboration with several national
publishers for the elections. They are setting up a pop-up
newsroom in Rajasthan, and one of our reporters will be
working closely with them,” says Kapur.
BBC research on misinformation in India
The BBC launched an international anti-disinformation
initiative, co-funded by Google, in November 2018 called
“Beyond Fake News.” Users in India, Kenya and Nigeria
gave the BBC unprecedented access to their encrypted
messaging apps over a seven-day period, allowing the
researchers to examine the kinds of material they shared,
whom they shared it with and how often.
The research had several important findings.
A significant drop in the cost of data and smartphones
has encouraged people to engage with notifications
every few minutes.
Respondents’ default behaviour is to keep notifications
on and “we believe this behaviour is quite widespread.
For many respondents, when asked how they come to
know about a news event, say that it’s “because of notifications,”
states the report.
Pictures over text
Images were found to be “overwhelmingly preferred for
consumption or to engage with” in India.
A lot of Indians do not understand the differentiation between
information, analysis and opinion. “With the definition
of news becoming expansive and all encompassing,
we find that anything of importance to the citizen is
now considered ‘news.’”
Sourcing of content shared is usually absent. “The original
source, if at all present in the message itself, is often
ignored or unnoticed in Facebook, or completely absent
in WhatsApp,” says the research.
The research concludes that the hook that is helping
the mobilization of violence in India might not be its
reach, scale or speed of transmission, but the fact that it
is uniting people in tight networks of like-mindedness.
Socio-political identity plays a key role in sharing of
fake news, especially for those on the right. The multiple
distinct identities emerging within the right are all bound
by common narratives, but there is no real unified sense
of a “left” identity in India.
“For the 2019 general elections, there is
no place for foreign interference on Facebook.
We have learned several lessons
from 2016. We are investing heavily in
people and technology and working towards
more ad transparency. Elections in
India are important, and we’ll be doing
our best to protect its integrity,”
– Vertika Yadav, Facebook
Facebook’s fact-checking initiatives
Facebook removes fake accounts and disrupts economic
incentives for traffickers of misinformation who make
money by masquerading as legitimate news publishers
and posting hoaxes that prompt people to visit their
sites, which are often just ads.
“We use signals to predict which articles, photos,
and videos may be false or misleading, including user
feedback. These signals are critical for training our machine
learning models to identify more potential false
news,” said Vertika Yadav, Facebook spokesperson
Misinformation is not limited to articles – people
share things natively, and when it is something visual, it
can be even more visceral and harder to suspend disbelief.
Fake news and technology
Facebook works with partners that have been certified
through the Poynter Institute’s non-partisan International
Fact Checking Network. Currently, they are working with
BOOM and AFP in India.
Facebook’s system is a hybrid of people and technology.
Its machine learning models identify links to articles
that might be false, the model predictions of which it
uses to prioritise the links it shows to third-party factcheckers.
How Google is helping combat misinformation
Google India has launched a range of monitoring and
policy initiatives in India with the Lok Sabha elections
around the corner, that will see BJP contesting for a second
term in power. The company is also partnering with
the Election Commission of India.
“The election ads policy for India requires that advertisers
running ads in India provide a pre-certificate issued
by the ECI, or anyone authorised by the ECI, for each ad
they wish to run. Google will verify the identity of advertisers
before their election ads run on our platforms,”
In 2018, Google announced its $300 million Google
News Initiative to train journalists to fight fake news. As
part of its efforts in India, the search giant plans to train
8,000 journalists during a year.
WhatsApp took out
string of lynchings in
India sparked by the
propagation of fake
Credit: (AFP Photo)